Using the Word: Evil

Guest Post from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg – read more on her blog at

Yesterday morning in Newtown, Connecticut, a young man murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with six adults, having already killed his own mother. When I saw the news, I broke down and cried. All I could say, over and over, was Why would anyone kill little children? How could anyone do such evil?

Yes, I’m using the word evil. I can’t think of any word that even comes close to describing the actions of someone who is so angry, so desperate, and so full of self-pity that he decides to take 20 children with him. And really, there is no answer to the question of why. Sometimes, people do evil because they can, because they decide to discard their moral compass, because they decide to inflict pain.

But of course, we live in a society in which simply saying that evil is afoot doesn’t cut it anymore. We want answers. We want control. We want it fixed. So we make it a sickness, because we hope that someday sickness will have a cure.

And so we find scapegoats. When another atrocity happens, we hear people say that the shooter must have been mentally ill. We hear people say that the shooter must have had autism. In this case, the media is engaging in scapegoating both groups: more than one news outlet has reported that the shooter was both mentally ill and autistic, as though being mentally ill and autistic were an explanation for killing 26 people.

Yes, it’s happening again. It’s becoming predictable. In the past 24 hours, I have been involved in discussions in which people have not only engaged in the usual He must have been mentally ill speculations, but have also said that because autistic people have meltdowns, it’s plausible that the shooter simply had a meltdown.

Let’s get something straight right now. Autistic people have meltdowns because their sensory systems get overloaded and it hurts more than anyone who has never experienced it could understand. And yes, sometimes, people strike out in the course of a meltdown. Not always, but sometimes. Often, they strike out at themselves. And when they do strike out, it’s a spontaneous act. It’s a neurological response that is not even remotely close to premeditating a murder.

People in the midst of a meltdown do not take the time and the forethought to arm themselves with a bullet-proof vest and several weapons, make their way to an elementary school, and consciously target two particular classrooms of children and the school office. In fact, most people in the midst of a meltdown just want to withdraw and get away from people and the stressors that cause overload.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Autism is not a predisposing factor to premeditated violence. Autistic people are far, far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators.

And the same goes for mental illness. Most mentally ill people do not harm anyone and are at much greater risk of being the victims of violence.

If you must ask the question of why, take a look at what all the school shooters have in common: they are young men. Of course, simply being a man does not predispose anyone to violence. But perhaps the fact that we equate manhood with power and domination in our society does. Maybe, just maybe, we need to separate violence from the definition of being a man. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start looking at the way that we glorify violence among men.

That’s not scapegoating. That’s taking a good look at we do, as a culture, to make it more likely that people choose evil.

Scapegoating innocent, vulnerable groups of disabled people — people with autism, people with mental illness — is irresponsible. It has the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of people who are already struggling against stigma and exclusion.

So let’s do some self-reflection as a culture. Let’s look at what we’re communicating to our young men about what it means to be a man.

And when we do, let’s leave disabled people out of it.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

0 thoughts on “Using the Word: Evil

  • Juniper

    @R says “…Similar women often find ways to maneuver around barriers, to conform. They have a better chance to integrate into the workplace and even to have a family. They have other attributes: they might be prettier to look at or considered to be just plain more pleasant to be around…”

    What about the similar women who aren’t prettier to look at or considered just plain more pleasant?  Do they not fit your stereotypes of womanhood enough?  Would acknowledging their existence interfere with your egotistical pity party?

  • Juniper

    “Men with mental illness suffer far greater social stigma than women, are discriminated against far more, and are looked
    upon with far greater suspicion and downright hatred. Why? Simple, people know that men have the greatest propensity for violence…”

    Protecting oneself from someone who appears to have a propensity for violence is not discrimination, it’s self-defense.  What do you want to rest of us to do instead?  Lay back and make ourselves even more vulnerable to people who act just like, sound just like – and for all we know actually are – people who hate us?

    These violent guys aren’t reacting to “being treated by society like they’re infants.”  They’re reacting to being tresated by society as mere equals instead of superiors who the rest of us should allow to attack us.

  • @chronic_masticator@xanga – 

    Surprisingly men don’t react well to
    being treated by society like they’re infants. Even mentally ill men will
    struggle to retain some sovereignty, individuality, manhood. No adult enjoys
    being at the mercy of others’ decisions that seal a persons’ own fate and
    quality of life—made astronomically worse if those very choices prove
    unfavorable and detrimental—to doom that man to lifelong dependency and
    submission. Profoundly mentally ill are often excessively irrational or are
    hindered by medications that affect their resolve or their ability to assert
    their rights as human beings: to protect themselves from a society that bears
    no interest in securing their welfare. Guaranteed impoverishment strips away
    personal control to determine the direction of one’s own fate even further.
    Thus a man that has his will crushed is not immune to revolting in a final act
    of retribution—to demonstrate a retaliatory defense of domination against an
    oppressing society through a display of aggression, to turn the tables, to bend
    other’s to their will, to place the defenseless or vulnerable at their mercy.

  • @FallenSafely@xanga– You’re a very thoughtful woman, but
    you’re also completely wrong on this. I have similar circumstances to you; but
    I’ll offer the man’s perspective. Men with mental illness suffer far greater
    social stigma than women, are discriminated against far more, and are looked
    upon with far greater suspicion and downright hatred. Why? Simple, people know
    that men have the greatest propensity for violence. Thus, they cause people to
    drawback from fear, suspicion, even anxiety. A man lacking in social skills is
    doomed to extreme poverty or homelessness. Similar women often find ways to
    maneuver around barriers, to conform. They have a better chance to integrate into
    the workplace and even to have a family. They have other attributes: they might
    be prettier to look at or considered to be just plain more pleasant to be
    around. A woman that is quiet is accepted, a man who is quiet is shunned and
    called a freak, a weirdo, a fag, a retard, a psycho, an oddball, and is treated with caution and looked upon as being a serious threat–guilty until proven innocent. Shunned, exiled, cast out. So with
    that out of the way….You’re wrong, because young men who are looked at as being
    odd don’t need to encounter greater stigma than is already forced upon them and
    greater abuse than they already need to endure. Too many mentally ill men are
    treated like felons even if they have never committed a single crime.
    It’s overwhelming and it is shocking to someone who is already suffering
    greatly from anxiety and social awkwardness to withstand such a cold reception
    from others. It almost causes the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. If a person
    is doomed to desperation…It is absolutely critical to downplay the mental
    illness aspect of these crimes in order to insulate the mentally ill from
    suffering even greater levels of abuse and stigma than is already confronting
    them. We don’t need to fan the flames of another witch hunt; it would be soooo
    counter-productive. We need progress; and ironically that can only commence
    with society becoming MORE acceptable of people who are different. Mental
    health services are extremely expensive. Shortcuts are taken instead like
    drugging men and women into their oblivion as a solution. Teaching acceptance,
    social skills, ethics needs to start in schools. Too many parents cannot be
    relied upon.

  • Juniper

    Most people aren’t violent bigots.  Unfortunately, a few are.  I’d expect most mentally healthy people to be peaceful and a few to be violent bigots.  I’d expect most mentally ill people to be peaceful, and a few to be violent bigots.

  • @FallenSafely@xanga – The article you suggested is very interesting. We mourn for the parents of the deceased but this article reveals the pain of mothers who raise kids like Adam Lanza.

    Most women have internal aggression whereas most men have external aggression…That is why more of them are diagnosed with emotional disturbance, but that does not mean women are not as depressed.

    For what it is worth, I am sorry about your friend and hope you will both find peace despite the scarcity of services and resources available for your needs. I wish there was more I could do, but yours is a journey full of inner struggle and courage.

  • Maybe you need to read this.

    I know that naturally you want to stick up for those with disabilities and say that they aren’t a harm and you’re right most of us are not. I have a mental illness myself. But that doesn’t mean that some people with disabilities can’t be a harm to society. Simply shooing it away and saying that their mental illness didn’t cause it is doing an injustice to every FUTURE Adam Lanza out there and all their victims. It’s time to talk about some really hard stuff and it’s going to take some blows at the mentally ill community, but honestly if it saves lives I don’t care. It’s not about making excuses for them. It’s not about making sure people know that in general that those with mental disabilities are not harmful. It’s about saving lives.

    Our mental health budget is at an all time low and they want to cut it more. In my state they closed down half of the state psychiatric wards in 1999, leaving people waiting days to get into private psychiatric wards, if they even got in at all. Suicide rates are up. Homicide rates are up. And crime in general is up. It’s time to start talking about it and not time to start ignoring it. It just took me four months to get a psychiatric appt and I was on the fast list. Now I didn’t have urges to go shoot up a movie theatre, but outward aggression isn’t part of my illness. If you think I didn’t almost kill myself at least three of four times, I’d be lying.

    I have a good friend I wrote about the day before Adam Lanza’s attack who I knew from a mental illness group. She has always been outwardly aggressive in her mental illness. She has PTSD from being raped. She stabbed a guy in the neck twice on Monday because he tried to come on to her and she mistaked it for rape. You know where they put her? Prison.

    You think she doesn’t need some type of psychiatric treatment for being that hypervigilent? I do.

  • Schizophrenics can be violent.  Those with dementia, depression, mania, and bipolar can be, too.  Also those with intercranial infections, cerebral infection or injury, alcohol psychosis, and reactive or paranoid psychoses.  While most mentally ill are not violent, THERE ARE STILL those who are mentally ill and a danger to society.  And when a man goes into a kindergarten classroom and kills 20 kids, people naturally want to say it was due to untreated mental illness.  What sane or balanced person walks into a room full of kids and starts firing at them?  Or at his mother?

    Reading this, I get the impression that you believe most mentally ill are of the dependent variety, where they absolutely cannot function or do anything without the assistance of someone else.  And that’s not the case.  Remember the boy that shot up the theater in Aurora?  Up until that point, everyone thought he was just your average college student.  Turns out he was severely paranoid schizophrenic.

    Just as it’s in bad taste to blame everything on mental illness, as it does nothing to get rid of the stigma that surrounds it, it’s equally dangerous to just write it off as though it’s not even possible.  When people become aware of the problem it really is, JUST MAYBE those affected by it won’t be so ashamed to seek help.

  • They were young white men. Did you not see the memes going around after the Aurora shooting? Young white and Asian mass murderers are mentally unbalanced. Young black mass murderers are thugs. Hispanics are illegals. Middle Easterners are terrorists. If we’re going to self-reflect as a culture we need to acknowledge that we’ve created a society where apathy is “cool”, caring is out, violence is sensationalized and no one has outlets for their anger until it becomes unhealthy and they explode.

    As I’ve stated before, what would happen if everyone who felt mass shootings were wrong turned off their televisions and actively cared for six months? A year? If a few out of every hundred cared and organized themselves into a lobby, went to DC and demanded something be done?
    Something would get done. But it won’t because we’ll all play the blame game until people stop fbing the names of the dead and in a few months, maybe a year, the news will report another shooting and we’ll all point fingers again.


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